Tales of Symphonia

The Nintendo 64 era was hardly a utopian age for the company, its history paved by the emaciated cadavers of partially-developed games, what with the limitations of the system’s retained cartridge medium. Things got better, however, during the GameCube era since Nintendo actually started to use discs for the system capable of holding more data, and among the roleplaying game gems on the system was Tales of Symphonia, which saw its Japanese release in 2003 and its North American release the following year in the middle of what was a dark age of the franchise outside Japan, and its rerelease on the PlayStation 2 remained in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Fortunately for series enthusiasts, the Tales pantheon would enter something of a golden age outside Japan, what with the franchise’s creators actually starting to care about foreign fans, and in celebration of the title’s tenth anniversary, Namco released the Tales of Symphonia Unisonant Pack for the PlayStation 3, containing HD ports of Symphonia and its direct sequel, Dawn of the New World, the latter’s Wii version seeing foreign release, and the collection itself receiving a localization in America as Tales of Symphonia Chronicles. Symphonia itself provides an experience on par with the original incarnation and the rest of the series.

Symphonia takes place in the declining world of Sylvarant, in the same universe as and some time before Tales of Phantasia, and in such times, a Chosen must follow the pilgrimage of becoming an angel to regenerate the planet, and in the game’s time, this duty falls to the game’s primary female protagonist, Colette, who, alongside the main male lead, Lloyd Irving, his friend Genis Sage, his teacher and Genis’s older sister Raine, and a mysterious knight named Kratos, embarks upon the sacrificial path to angelhood. However, a group of half-elves known as the Desians threaten this pilgrimage, along with other forces, some from the nearby world of Tethe’alla.

Gameplay has almost always been a strong suit for Tales games, and Symphonia is no exception, its original version being the first in the franchise to feature visible encounters within dungeon and on the overworld. Very early in the game, the player acquires the Sorcerer’s Ring, which they can use to shoot a fireball (or other elemental force) at enemies to stun them and avoid fighting them. However, odds are that most players won’t be able to make it through the game by avoiding all potential enemy encounters, so they must fight foes to some degree in order to keep their party’s levels sufficient and face tougher antagonists throughout the game.

Fights take place on a battlefield with the player’s active party of four characters and the foes squaring off, the player controlling one character, preferably Lloyd, while the A.I. controls his allies. Lloyd can chain physical attacks and TP-consuming skills into combos, his confederates also able to contribute to his attack chain. Some characters can use magic, as well, and casting spells takes a few seconds, during when the enemy can interrupt them, forcing them to try again, which works against the enemy as well, and since antagonist sorcerers can be somewhat deadly, taking them out first is typically a good idea.

Lloyd may occasionally learn new skills when leveling, although in some cases, the player may need to unlock a few of them by using lower-level skills a certain number of times, values that Symphonia unfortunately doesn’t indicate, but mercifully, the game is beatable without learning every skill and spell. Although the battlefield is in three dimensions, each character has linear movement, with their paths adjustable by holding the R1 button and selecting a different enemy target, during which the game action mercifully pauses. Although the player can’t jump in the controlled character’s default semi-auto mode, selecting manual mode allows them to do so if the player needs to leap past enemies in order to attack one of its companions.

Outside battle, characters can equip four EX Gems of varying levels providing effects such as additional attacks in combos. Lloyd and company may also obtain titles they can select from their status menus to emphasize specific stats to grow when leveling. All in all, the battle system definitely helps the game more than hurts, with a decent degree on challenge even on the lowest normal difficulty setting, many boss battles definitely taxing the player’s consumable items (and using one makes the player wait a few seconds before they can use another). The only real flaw is the aforementioned lack of in-game indication as to how many uses of particular skills will unlock upper-level abilities.

The game interface is superficially decent, with easy menus, shopping, and navigation, although there are various issues that keep this aspect from excelling. No in-game dungeon maps, a feature that even decades-old titles such as The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past had? Check. Puzzles unsolvable without a guide? Check. Sometimes-poor direction on how to advance the main plot, even with an in-game synopsis guide? Check. The constant need to change between English and Japanese voices if the player desires to have voices during skits? Check. Unskippable dialogue in the skits themselves? Check. No pausing outside battle? Check. Pausing in battle not stopping the game clock? Check. The issues are numerous, although things could have certainly been worse, and interaction is ultimately one of the weaker aspects of Symphonia.

Perhaps the weakest aspect of the game, though, is its narrative, which is horribly derivative, usurping elements from predecessors such as Tales of Phantasia and Tales of Eternia, and other RPGs such as Secret of Mana and Final Fantasy X. The plot also rips off storyline twists from films such as Soylent Green and The Empire Strikes Back, and many elements such as the localization team’s decision to call concentration camps “human ranches” (alongside errors such as a misuse of “whom” in the opening scenes other minor script flaws) are simply asinine. In the end, the writers and translation team could have certainly given the narrative and script a once-over.

A stronger element, however, is the aurals, series composer Motoi Sakuraba doing a nice job as usual, and notable tracks including the techno military base theme, and the English voice acting isn’t half bad, either. Players also have the choice between English and Japanese voices during battles and cutscenes (although the skits lack English voicework, with the player, as mentioned, needing to switch to Japanese voices in order to get acting during those particular scenes), and for once, the localization team kept the Japanese theme song during the opening anime intact. All in all, an excellent-sounding game.

Aside from the widescreen adjustment, the visuals are more or less the same as in the GameCube version of Symphonia, with character and enemy models sporting a cel-shaded style, and while they superficially look decent, the character models have limited gestures and emotions, all voiced characters, for instance, almost always looking happy even when they’re not. The scenery, especially on the overworld, looks blurry and pixilated as well, with enemy models in dungeons indicative of battles in many instances not reflecting their actual enemies, and the overworld using two different types of black tadpoles to indicate fights. The graphics are by no means bad, but certainly could have used more polish, especially considering the visual capabilities of the PlayStation 3.

Finally, the game may last players a while, a straightforward playthrough taking as little as thirty hours, although sidequests can easily push playing time beyond that time, a replay mode allowing players to carry elements from their initial playthrough into a new game.

In conclusion, Tales of Symphonia, for the most part, is a solid offering that hits many of the right notes, especially with regards to its gameplay and aurals, although aspects such as its narrative and visuals definitely leave room from improvement, although the latter aspect still has some things going for it. The game itself would prove popular enough to receive a direct sequel on the Nintendo Wii, Dawn of the New World. Those that missed out on the GameCube version due to things such as keeping loyal to Sony’s videogame systems definitely owe it to themselves to try out the PlayStation 3 incarnation as part of Tales of Symphonia Chronicles.

The Good:
+Solid Tales battle system.
+Great English voice acting and soundtrack.

The Bad:
-Various interface issues.
-Derivative storyline.
-No English voicework for skits.
-Graphics lack polish.

The Bottom Line:
An enjoyable port.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 3
Game Mechanics: 9/10
Controls: 6/10
Story: 5/10
Music/Sound: 9/10
Graphics: 7/10
Localization: 8/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Adjustable, Slightly Hard on “Normal”
Playing Time: 30-45 Hours

Overall: 8/10

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